Saturday, August 20, 2016

Running In Circles Around Overlapping Spheres

Who would’ve really thought the Indian and Chinese presidents one day would be vying with each other so feverishly to visit Nepal first. Okay, neither Pranab Mukherjee nor Xi Jinping seems that desperate. But you get the drift.
Watch for what is said as well as what is not. The Indians never felt the need to deny that K.P. Oli had to exit Baluwatar because he coveted that northern alliance a bit too much for his own good. Their sense of triumphalism says it all.
When Nepal flashed the ‘China card’ in the past, the Indians could easily mock the palace for indulging in such a blatant anti-people ploy. The mandarins up north weren’t exactly helpful, either.
When the Indians locked Nepal in that economic stranglehold in 1989-1990 for having bought anti-aircraft guns from China, lost in the story was the fact that Beijing had tempted us with lucrative prices. When the Panchayat system collapsed as a result, the Chinese joined the chorus denouncing how despicable the partyless system was.
After the royal takeover of February 2005, Beijing was no doubt the principal external beneficiary. Tightening the noose on Tibetan exiles, the palace-led government sought to correct Nepal’s southern and western drift the Chinese had begun grumbling about in public.
Beijing got observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. What did the Nepali government that had so strenuously pushed China’s case get? Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Once the royal government collapsed, the Chinese swiftly changed their ambassador so that he could be the first foreign envoy to present credentials to the prime minister, who was officiating as head of state.
Republican Nepal didn’t fare much better. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal as prime minister attempted to publicly reconfigure Nepal geopolitical locus, the Indians didn’t seem too bothered. The seven parties arrayed against the monarchy were still available to tame the Maoists. After Dahal’s departure from Singha Darbar, Beijing seemed to cultivate the hardliners in the Maoists, eventually emboldening them to break away.
Oli’s ‘China card’, however, proved to be different. From the outset, it reminded the Indians that the game had two players. Beijing seemed anxious to demonstrate that this time, it meant business. Sure, things are still pro forma on the Sino-Nepali front. The legacy of distrust on both sides may not be at the level of Nepal-India relations in scope as well as in public rancor. But suspicions and skepticism do persist.
Yet the agreements the two governments signed during Oli’s visit to Beijing do provide the basis for concrete action on meaningful cooperation in the event of requisite political commitment. It is Xi’s visit to Nepal everybody’s talking about, not President Bidya Bhandari’s to China. Thus, the immediate task for the Indians is to scuttle a Xi visit, at least before Mukherjee makes a trip, in terms of the battle of perceptions.
This time, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is not in two minds about which neighbor to visit first. But he still has to figure out which neighboring leader to host first. As for Nepalis, they understand better why they are feeling the squeeze.
The title of being the last tributary to the Middle Kingdom comes with a price, especially when the successor regime draws inspiration from the same imperial ambitions. On the other side, the Indians see Nepal as the unfinished business of independence. These competing claims of sphere of influence aren’t going to be resolved any time soon.
So how’s this for a deal? Let Mukherjee and Xi alight the same aircraft, together, hand in hand, either before or after the Goa BRICS summit in October. The least we can do is provide the plane.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Is It Adjournment Or Abandonment On The Right?

Where does the unification effort between the two factions of the right-of-center Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) stand today? RPP chairman Pashupati Shamsher Rana insists that the amalgamation announcement set for August 9 could not take place because of the parties’ failure to agree on ‘balance of power’. He contends that the door remains very much open.
RPP-Nepal Chairman Kamal Thapa, however, earlier unleashed a public tirade against Rana for having exhibited sheer dishonesty and fallen under the influence of a foreign power center (read India) to thwart what had been an elaborately negotiated unification.
A palpably aggrieved Rana shot back, refuting those allegations as unbecoming of a leader of Thapa’s standing. He has since demanded an apology from Thapa as a precondition for unity. Meanwhile, luminaries from Rana’s RPP have joined Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s cabinet, at a time when Thapa’s party has assiduously chosen to remain part of the opposition.
Intemperate though they may have been, Thapa’s public comments were understandable, given his version of the turn of events. Rana ostensibly pulled the plug unilaterally at the last minute, without – in Thapa’s words – exhibiting the “courtesy, decorum and political character” of consulting with the RPP-Nepal on such a two-pronged matter. Rana’s equally unflinching demand for a public apology from Thapa underscores the deep personal antagonisms that have set in.
All along, the unification hype failed the basic smell test. Admittedly, the RPP-Nepal and RPP today seem to be united by a desire to see the reinstatement of Hindu statehood. Beyond that, the latter is still wedded to republicanism and views the RPP-Nepal with abiding suspicion on that front (or at least gives a public posture of such).
Thapa, for his part, has come under criticism from loyalists for having discarded the agenda of restoring the monarchy. No longer on the defensive, though, the former deputy prime minister has placed the monarchy as the driver of its broader nationalist agenda. Asked to comment on perceptions that the former monarch himself was displeased at the party’s ostensible dilution of the pro-monarchy plank, Thapa told a leading Nepali newsweekly: “The RPP-Nepal is not a committee created for the restoration of the monarchy”.
The RPP signed on the new secular, republican constitution, while the RPP-Nepal was the only party that voted against it. Yet both parties became part of the K.P. Oli-led coalition. In the intervening months, Thapa appears to have beaten back factionalism within the party, while Rana still faces lingering divisions within. (Key RPP members originally expressed anger-tinged surprise at the scuttling of the unification effort, before subsequently going silent).
Yet we were somehow supposed to believe that the two groups – with their demonstrable history of fission and fusion –would join hands for the greater good of the nation, leaving it to the general convention to iron out their underlying differences.
According to Rana’s latest – and hitherto most specific – explication, the unification effort was dropped after Thapa failed to agree to an equitable balance of the functions, duties and rights of the national chairperson and executive chairperson of the proposed new party. (A contention Thapa, one might add, seemed to publicly refute even before Rana had advanced it.)
Still, if things are in the works as Rana says, Thapa’s stance doesn’t seem to give that impression. He is still busy singing paeans to the nationalist credentials of the last government and scolding the successor for encouraging blatant external intervention.
Even if the two groups were to unite sooner or later, wouldn’t the storyline be the same? How long before they split again?

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Humility: Making Sense Of Dahal’s Makeover

Photo: RSS
For someone who stepped down from the premiership so rancorously seven years ago refusing to ‘prostrate’ before ‘foreign gods’, Pushpa Kamal Dahal is trying hard these days to illuminate his halo of humility.
To be sure, Nepal’s top Maoist no longer projects the ferocity of yore. Open politics has provided him none of the safeguards of the subterranean schemes that characterized the ‘people’s war’. Especially not when you no longer have your own army and when the sword of the International Criminal Court hovers above you incessantly.
So Nepalis may be forgiven for looking past the fact that Dahal is the only communist leader fortunate enough to have returned to the premiership.
Our new prime minister’s early pronouncements have been akin to excuses for impending failure. Gone is the bluster about institutionalizing discontinuities in the affairs of state. The cabinet’s decision to withdraw the nominations of 14 ‘political’ ambassadors, while superficially bold, seems to have been a sop to the Nepali Congress.
How far such demonstrable overtures of a break with K.P. Oli government would go towards placating the coalition partner remains unclear. Mindful of the disarray within the Nepali Congress, Dahal has rejected any notion that he is under any deal to stay for a mere nine months.
The seven intervening years have been instructive to us all. During 2008-2009, Dahal stuck out his neck so northward that it almost snapped. Instead of providing him cover, the Chinese bolstered the more hard-line Mohan Baidya faction, emboldening it eventually to break away.
True, the Americans met Dahal more than halfway, but, in retrospect, only to undermine his revolutionary credentials. In the end, navigating the factional dynamics in India turned out to be most important – and intractable.
Having failed to sack a supposedly insubordinate army chief, Dahal chose to resign and wage a battle to preserve the principle of democratic supremacy. His domestic opponents laughed him off. Separation of powers? Coming out of the mouth of a Maoist? The army was disbanded, the party split and the next election was lost. Much of the party has come back together, but the country is in tatters.
Isn’t it interesting how Dahal undertook a public transformation coinciding with the change in government in India? We did hear of how Nepal’s Maoists opened their first serious contacts with official New Delhi during the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Atal Behari Vajpayee government around 2002.
Almost as if in response to Dahal’s ascension, a senior BJP leader just the other day ruled out the return of the monarchy in Nepal. (His point: “How can the people want to bring back a king who slunk away from them during their hour of greatest need?”)
Friends and foes alike may ruminate all they want about the extent of Dahal’s transformation. What matters is the extent of the bases he has covered where it matters. So keep your eyes on how the transactional dimensions of Nepal-India political relations evolve in the weeks and months ahead.
This is not to say that our prime minister is in an untenable position. If Dahal was able to show an Indian hand behind his departure last time, who’s to say he can’t benefit from perceptions of New Delhi’s role in his resurrection? Heck, former prime minister Oli can still keep regaling us with his aphorisms.